Captain Phillips (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is in command of a cargo ship en route to Mombasa, Kenya. Aware of the pirates patrolling the Gulf of Aden, he insists on being vigilant of the potential dangers of the voyage. Soon enough, two boats with armed men are in pursuit of Maersk Alabama. The leader, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), is extremely determined to get aboard the ship, take hostages, and receive millions of dollars in exchange. Although the massive ship is running full speed, the boats inch closer by the second.
Half of “Captain Phillips,” directed by Paul Greengrass, is a good movie—heavily entertaining and with a solid handle on the human drama between Somali pirates and Americans who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The first half is strong; the second half is fatigued. Meanwhile, Greengrass employs his usual tricks which work only some of the time.
With the exception of the first scene between Phillips and his wife (Catherine Keener), which is at best an awkward miscalculation, the first forty to fifty minutes builds tension so elegantly and so convincingly, I discovered my hands clamming up in anticipation. You know you are watching something genuinely suspenseful and thrilling when the trailer reveals certain information but that knowledge goes out the window and you feel you are caught in the middle of the conflict being portrayed on screen. In other words, the pirates will get on the ship but you root for them to fail anyway.
The two boats chasing the cargo ship is Greengrass at his best. The editing is quick and sharp but never incomprehensible. He is in complete control of the camera as emphasis is placed on the urgency of what ought to be done in order to accomplish a goal. From the Americans’ perspective: communicating with proper authorities to seek aid, gaining a whole lot of speed, getting defenses set up, and a possible Plan B. From Somali pirates’ side: maintaining speed but not to the point where their boats can be overturned by the waves.
In addition, the camera captures the many expressions of Captain Phillips, from determination, anticipation, increasing fear, and surrender. Though we get only glimpses of Hanks during the high-speed pursuit, there is enough detail in his voice, body movement, and facial expressions to communicate to us what his character might be feeling or thinking during a particular snapshot. He is an extremely efficient performer and it is a complete joy to watch him near the top of his game.
But the second half left me unimpressed. Most of it takes place in a small space which gives us a whole lot of time waiting for something significant to occur. In addition to utilizing a much slower pace, the general approach involves repetition: a cycle of physical and verbal violence then a period of waiting. Captain Phillips’ struggle verges on boredom.
Instead of being inspired to lean closer, I found the close-ups and shaking of the camera repulsive. It is as if the director wants so badly for us to be in the moment that he neglects to just leave the camera be and trust that we are already emotionally involved in the conflict. As a result, instead of being in the moment as I was during the first half, I found myself noticing the craftsmanship and, more importantly, a lack of control with regards to the elements that should, in a theory, make the drama work.
“Captain Phillips,” based on the screenplay by Billy Ray and Richard Phillips’ book, is elevated by an ace performer, but the director needs to learn new tricks or at least be willing to go back to basics in order to tell parts of his story more effectively.